The saga of a lottery-teacher pay plan

June 19, 2014 

The state House plan to increase state lottery advertising to generate an extra $106 million to pay for a 5 percent raise for teachers was strange from the outset. Now, it has gotten even more interesting.

First, to tie teacher pay to games of chance played disproportionately by our state’s less well-off residents is nearly impossible to defend. But to make us all feel better about the state’s being in the gambling business, the House oddly installed restrictions on the lottery advertising it wants increased that would make its $100 million goal impossible to reach.

For example, one provision would not allow advertising in connection with collegiate events – events that in these parts draw hundreds of thousands of people in the course of a year. That’s a tremendous potential customer base, advertising folks might say. Another provision calls for the lottery to post more information on the odds of winning and the payouts.

When lottery officials pointed out that the restrictions would keep the games from bringing in $100 million more, that’s not what House budget writer Nelson Dollar of Cary wanted to hear.

And therein lies the most recent twist to the story.

Alice Garland, who runs the state lottery, says that she warned Dollar before the House adopted its budget that the lottery revenue would fall short of the target. She even provided documents to key House officials.

Dollar, she says, told her to keep quiet about that.

A troubling hypocrisy

Garland met with a state Senate committee Wednesday and told senators that the House’s advertising restrictions were designed “to put the lottery out of business.” She said the limits would mean missing the $106 million target set by the House by $47 million.

That gave senators the ammunition they needed to blast away at the House budget, which they did.

Meanwhile, Dollar seemed to be scrambling. He said that he thinks the House target can be reached and that he didn’t have anything “in writing” to convince him otherwise. He noted that the lottery has beaten projected revenues in the past and that there are reserve funds to cover any shortfalls.

Republicans generally opposed the lottery prior to its passage, and now the House wants more people to play it? This discussion illuminates the troubling hypocrisy of an education lottery – period.

The collegiate advertising is important to lottery officials because it will draw more players into a long-shot game. And they don’t want to have to post more information about odds and payouts because that would have a negative effect on sales.

Hopelessly flawed

Why? Because if people knew more about the differences between the lump sum most winners want and the higher advertised jackpot, they might not be as drawn to gamble. In other words, the state might not be able to lure as many people into playing the lottery if potential players knew more about it.

The House plan is hopelessly flawed, but at least House Republican budgeteers did not plan to cut more teaching assistants, slice up the Department of Public Instruction budget and boot disabled and elderly people off Medicaid like senators did. GOP Senate leaders proudly justify their awful actions by saying it’s the only way to give teachers an 11 percent raise.

This embarrassing debate spurred by House Republicans’ clumsy budgeting and absolutely bizarre plan to goose up the state lottery by adding restrictions on advertising is another low point for this General Assembly.

Determined to cut taxes in a way that helps mostly the wealthy and big business and ignores the middle class, Republican legislators have painted themselves into a corner from which they cannot escape. It doesn’t appear House Republicans are going to help senators out of their corner, and Senate leaders seem perfectly content to leave House members in theirs.

The potential perils in this for public education are profound. For the vast majority of North Carolinians who believe in their teachers and value the public schools, that is frightening indeed.

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